Dr Ahmad Farouk Musa questions double standards by those who defend Zakir Naik’s freedom of speech but oppose the right of Muslims to practise their preferred school of thought.
PETALING JAYA: Prominent Muslim activist Dr. Ahmad Farouk Musa said he was not surprised by the storm of protests that greeted the appointment of Maszlee Malik as the Education Minister, but said a bigger worry was whether the Perlis fatwa committee member has the courage to press ahead with the concept of Bangsa Malaysia and resist pressures from extremists on Malaysia’s schooling system.
“The main issue here is whether he has the same courage as Dr Mahathir in facing the two extreme camps in this country, the Chinese educationist extremist and the conservative Malay educationist groups,” Farouk, who heads the outspoken Islamic Renaissance Front (IRF), told FMT.
A debate has been raging over Maszlee’s suitability for the post since he was named by Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad on Friday. Critics point to Maszlee’s defence of controversial preacher Dr Zakir Naik, who is wanted in India over allegations of extremism and money laundering.
They are also concerned with Maszlee’s leaning towards Salafist Islam, and his close association with Perlis Mufti Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin, who was recently summoned to a panel hearing on missing activist Amri Che Mat, who Asri had slammed for practising Shia Islam, which local Muslim bureaucrats label as “deviant”.
Dr. Maszlee Malik–Minister of Education
Maszlee’s supporters have alluded to his academic background and social activities, with others saying his defence of Naik was based on his belief in free speech.
Farouk said the criticism was expected, and questioned Maszlee’s openness as claimed by his supporters.
“If one were to argue that his defense of Zakir Naik was based on freedom of expression, then this freedom also requires him to grant the same to the Shias,” said Farouk, adding that it was only natural to link Maszlee’s opposition to the second largest Muslim denomination to his “Salafist” leaning.
“There cannot be a double standard in preaching for freedom of expression.”
Salafist Islam refers to a movement within Sunni Islam, with roots going back to Wahhabism, the supposedly puritan form of Islam that is officially adopted in Saudi Arabia.
Opposition to PPSMI
Farouk, a medical lecturer at Monash University Malaysia, who was once active with the Muslim Professionals Forum that Maszlee is also part of, said the calls for Mahathir to hold the education portfolio was based on the public’s confidence that he could initiate radical reforms in the sector.
This, he said, included the call by the Chinese education group Dong Zong to recognise the Unified Examination Certificate, and the pressure from Malay groups seeking to abolish the study of Science and Mathematics in English.
“Only he (Mahathir) has the strength and determination in facing this highly debatable issue,” said Farouk, who has supported past government initiatives under Mahathir to emphasise the use of English in schools.
“How do we compete at the International arena when we forego the most important language of science and technology in the 21st century?” he asked.
A policy championed by Mahathir, the Teaching and Learning of Science and Mathematics in English, or PPSMI, was aborted in 2011 by then education minister Muhyiddin Yassin, following protests from Malay groups.
The move was welcomed by Ikram, an umbrella organisation of Muslim groups, of which Maszlee is a committee member.
“We oppose any attempts to revive PPSMI because we are convinced that the decision by the education ministry is based on its internal findings,” the group had then said in a statement.
Maszlee, 44, who joined PPBM last March, won the Simpang Renggam parliamentary seat in Johor in the May 9 polls.
The former lecturer who taught subjects related to Islamic Jurisprudence at the International Islamic University was named as education minister after Mahathir changed his mind about holding the post himself.
Mahathir said he would abide by a Pakatan Harapan promise that the Prime Minister would not hold any other portfolio.
But within 24 hours of the announcement, over 60,000 signed an online petition urging Mahathir to return to the post, saying he “will bring much needed reforms to the education system in this country”.
WASHINGTON — Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump do not agree on much, but Saudi Arabia may be an exception. She has deplored Saudi Arabia’s support for “radical schools and mosques around the world that have set too many young people on a path towards extremism.” He has called the Saudis “the world’s biggest funders of terrorism.”
The first American diplomat to serve as envoy to Muslim communities around the world visited 80 countries and concluded that the Saudi influence was destroying tolerant Islamic traditions. “If the Saudis do not cease what they are doing,” the official, Farah Pandith, wrote last year, “there must be diplomatic, cultural and economic consequences.”
Barack Obama soft on Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi ideology
And hardly a week passes without a television pundit or a newspaper columnist blaming Saudi Arabia for jihadist violence. On HBO, Bill Maher calls Saudi teachings “medieval,” adding an epithet. In The Washington Post, Fareed Zakaria writes that the Saudis have “created a monster in the world of Islam.”
The idea has become a commonplace: that Saudi Arabia’s export of the rigid, bigoted, patriarchal, fundamentalist strain of Islam known as Wahhabism has fueled global extremism and contributed to terrorism. As the Islamic State projects its menacing calls for violence into the West, directing or inspiring terrorist attacks in country after country, an old debate over Saudi influence on Islam has taken on new relevance.
Is the world today a more divided, dangerous and violent place because of the cumulative effect of five decades of oil-financed proselytizing from the historical heart of the Muslim world? Or is Saudi Arabia, which has often supported Western-friendly autocrats over Islamists, merely a convenient scapegoat for extremism and terrorism with many complex causes — the United States’s own actions among them?
Those questions are deeply contentious, partly because of the contradictory impulses of the Saudi state.
In the realm of extremist Islam, the Saudis are “both the arsonists and the firefighters,” said William McCants, a Brookings Institution scholar. “They promote a very toxic form of Islam that draws sharp lines between a small number of true believers and everyone else, Muslim and non-Muslim,” he said, providing ideological fodder for violent jihadists.
What Is Wahhabism?
The Islam taught in and by Saudi Arabia is often called Wahhabism, after the 18th-century cleric who founded it. A literalist, ultraconservative form of Sunni Islam, its adherents often denigrate other Islamic sects as well as Christians and Jews.
Yet at the same time, “they’re our partners in counter terrorism,” said Mr. McCants, one of three dozen academics, government officials and experts on Islam from multiple countries interviewed for this article.
Saudi leaders seek good relations with the West and see jihadist violence as a menace that could endanger their rule, especially now that the Islamic State is staging attacks in the kingdom — 25 in the last eight months, by the government’s count. But they are also driven by their rivalry with Iran, and they depend for legitimacy on a clerical establishment dedicated to a reactionary set of beliefs. Those conflicting goals can play out in a bafflingly inconsistent manner.
Thomas Hegghammer, a Norwegian terrorism expert who has advised the United States government, said the most important effect of Saudi proselytizing might have been to slow the evolution of Islam, blocking its natural accommodation to a diverse and globalized world. “If there was going to be an Islamic reformation in the 20th century, the Saudis probably prevented it by pumping out literalism,” he said.
The Seoul Central Mosque in South Korea, one of hundreds of mosques around the world built using Saudi donations.Credit Choi Won-Suk/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
The reach of the Saudis has been stunning, touching nearly every country with a Muslim population, from the Gothenburg Mosque in Sweden to the King Faisal Mosque in Chad, from the King Fahad Mosque in Los Angeles to the Seoul Central Mosque in South Korea. Support has come from the Saudi government; the royal family; Saudi charities; and Saudi-sponsored organizations including the World Muslim League, the World Assembly of Muslim Youth and the International Islamic Relief Organization, providing the hardware of impressive edifices and the software of preaching and teaching.
There is a broad consensus that the Saudi ideological juggernaut has disrupted local Islamic traditions in dozens of countries — the result of lavish spending on religious outreach for half a century, estimated in the tens of billions of dollars. The result has been amplified by guest workers, many from South Asia, who spend years in Saudi Arabia and bring Saudi ways home with them. In many countries, Wahhabist preaching has encouraged a harshly judgmental religion, contributing to majority support in some polls in Egypt, Pakistan and other countries for stoning for adultery and execution for anyone trying to leave Islam.
And for a small minority in many countries, the exclusionary Saudi version of Sunni Islam, with its denigration of Jews and Christians, as well as of Muslims of Shiite, Sufi and other traditions, may have made some people vulnerable to the lure of Al Qaeda, the Islamic State and other violent jihadist groups. “There’s only so much dehumanizing of the other that you can be exposed to — and exposed to as the word of God — without becoming susceptible to recruitment,” said David Andrew Weinberg, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington who tracks Saudi influence.
The King Fahad Mosque in Los Angeles.Credit Patrick T. Fallon for The New York Times
Exhibit A may be Saudi Arabia itself, which produced not only Osama bin Laden, but also 15 of the 19 hijackers of Sept. 11, 2001; sent more suicide bombers than any other country to Iraq after the 2003 invasion; and has supplied more foreign fighters to the Islamic State, 2,500, than any country other than Tunisia.
Mehmet Gormez, the senior Islamic cleric in Turkey, said that while he was meeting with Saudi clerics in Riyadh in January, the Saudi authorities had executed 47 people in a single day on terrorism charges, 45 of them Saudi citizens. “I said: ‘These people studied Islam for 10 or 15 years in your country. Is there a problem with the educational system?’ ” Mr. Gormez said in an interview. He argued that Wahhabi teaching was undermining the pluralism, tolerance and openness to science and learning that had long characterized Islam. “Sadly,” he said, the changes have taken place “in almost all of the Islamic world.”
In a huge embarrassment to the Saudi authorities, the Islamic State adopted official Saudi textbooks for its schools until the extremist group could publish its own books in 2015. Out of 12 works by Muslim scholars republished by the Islamic State, seven are by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the 18th-century founder of the Saudi school of Islam, said Jacob Olidort, a scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. A former imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Sheikh Adil al-Kalbani declared with regret in a television interview in January that the Islamic State leaders “draw their ideas from what is written in our own books, our own principles.”
Small details of Saudi practice can cause outsize trouble. For at least two decades, the kingdom has distributed an English translation of the Quran that in the first surah, or chapter, adds parenthetical references to Jews and Christians in addressing Allah: “those who earned Your Anger (such as the Jews), nor of those who went astray (such as the Christians).” Seyyed Hossein Nasr, a professor of Islamic studies at George Washington University and the editor in chief of the new Study Quran, an annotated English version, said the additions were “a complete heresy, with no basis in Islamic tradition.”
Accordingly, many American officials who have worked to counter extremism and terrorism have formed a dark view of the Saudi effect — even if, given the sensitivity of the relationship, they are often loath to discuss it publicly. The United States’ reliance on Saudi counter terrorism cooperation in recent years — for instance, the Saudi tip that foiled a 2010 Qaeda plot to blow up two American cargo planes — has often taken precedence over concerns about radical influence. And generous Saudi funding for professorships and research centers at American universities, including the most elite institutions, has deterred criticism and discouraged research on the effects of Wahhabi proselytizing, according to Mr. McCants — who is working on a book about the Saudi impact on global Islam — and other scholars.
One American former official who has begun to speak out is Ms. Pandith, the State Department’s first special representative to Muslim communities worldwide. From 2009 to 2014, she visited Muslims in 80 countries and concluded that Saudi influence was pernicious and universal. “In each place I visited, the Wahhabi influence was an insidious presence,” she wrote in The New York Times last year. She said the United States should “disrupt the training of extremist imams,” “reject free Saudi textbooks and translations that are filled with hate,” and “prevent the Saudis from demolishing local Muslim religious and cultural sites that are evidence of the diversity of Islam.”
Yet some scholars on Islam and extremism, including experts on radicalization in many countries, push back against the notion that Saudi Arabia bears predominant responsibility for the current wave of extremism and jihadist violence. They point to multiple sources for the rise and spread of Islamist terrorism, including repressive secular governments in the Middle East, local injustices and divisions, the hijacking of the internet for terrorist propaganda, and American interventions in the Muslim world from the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan to the invasion of Iraq. The 20th-century ideologues most influential with modern jihadists, like Sayyid Qutb of Egypt and Abul Ala Maududi of Pakistan, reached their extreme, anti-Western views without much Saudi input. Al Qaeda and the Islamic State despise Saudi rulers, whom they consider the worst of hypocrites.
“Americans like to have someone to blame — a person, a political party or country,” said Robert S. Ford, a former United States ambassador to Syria and Algeria. “But it’s a lot more complicated than that. I’d be careful about blaming the Saudis.”
While Saudi religious influence may be disruptive, he and others say, its effect is not monolithic. A major tenet of official Saudi Islamic teaching is obedience to rulers — hardly a precept that encourages terrorism intended to break nations. Many Saudi and Saudi-trained clerics are quietist, characterized by a devotion to scripture and prayer and a shunning of politics, let alone political violence.
And especially since 2003, when Qaeda attacks in the kingdom awoke the monarchy to the danger it faced from militancy, Saudi Arabia has acted more aggressively to curtail preachers who call for violence, cut off terrorist financing and cooperate with Western intelligence to foil terrorist plots. From 2004 to 2012, 3,500 imams were fired for refusing to renounce extremist views, and another 20,000 went through retraining, according to the Ministry of Islamic Affairs — though the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom expressed skepticism that the training was really “instilling tolerance.”
An American scholar with long experience in Saudi Arabia — who spoke on condition of anonymity to preserve his ability to travel to the kingdom for research — said he believed that Saudi influence had often been exaggerated in American political discourse. But he compared it to climate change. Just as a one-degree increase in temperature can ultimately result in drastic effects around the globe, with glaciers melting and species dying off, so Saudi teaching is playing out in many countries in ways that are hard to predict and difficult to trace but often profound, the scholar said.
Saudi proselytizing can result in a “recalibrating of the religious center of gravity” for young people, the scholar said, which makes it “easier for them to swallow or make sense of the ISIS religious narrative when it does arrive. It doesn’t seem quite as foreign as it might have, had that Saudi religious influence not been there.”
Why does Saudi Arabia find it so difficult to let go of an ideology that much of the world finds repugnant? The key to the Saudi dilemma dates back nearly three centuries to the origin of the alliance that still undergirds the Saudi state. In 1744, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, a reformist cleric, sought the protection of Muhammad bin Saud, a powerful tribal leader in the harsh desert of the Arabian Peninsula. The alliance was mutually beneficial: Wahhab received military protection for his movement, which sought to return Muslims to what he believed were the values of the early years of Islam in the seventh century, when the Prophet Muhammad was alive. (His beliefs were a variant of Salafism, the conservative school of Islam that teaches that the salaf, or pious ancestors, had the correct ways and beliefs and should be emulated.) In return, the Saud family earned the endorsement of an Islamic cleric — a puritanical enforcer known for insisting on the death by stoning of a woman for adultery.
Wahhab’s particular version of Islam was the first of two historical accidents that would define Saudi religious influence centuries later. What came to be known as Wahhabism was “a tribal, desert Islam,” said Akbar Ahmed, the chairman of Islamic studies at American University in Washington. It was shaped by the austere environment — xenophobic, fiercely opposed to shrines and tombs, disapproving of art and music, and hugely different from the cosmopolitan Islam of diverse trading cities like Baghdad and Cairo.
The second historical accident came in 1938, when American prospectors discovered the largest oil reserves on earth in Saudi Arabia. Oil revenue generated by the Arabian-American Oil Company, or Aramco, created fabulous wealth. But it also froze in place a rigid social and economic system and gave the conservative religious establishment an extravagant budget for the export of its severe strain of Islam.
“One day you find oil, and the world is coming to you,” Professor Ahmed said. “God has given you the ability to take your version of Islam to the world.”
In 1964, when King Faisal ascended the throne, he embraced the obligation of spreading Islam. A modernizer in many respects, with close ties to the West, he nonetheless could not overhaul the Wahhabi doctrine that became the face of Saudi generosity in many countries. Over the next four decades, in non-Muslim-majority countries alone, Saudi Arabia would build 1,359 mosques, 210 Islamic centers, 202 colleges and 2,000 schools. Saudi money helped finance 16 American mosques; four in Canada; and others in London, Madrid, Brussels and Geneva, according to a report in an official Saudi weekly, Ain al-Yaqeen. The total spending, including supplying or training imams and teachers, was “many billions” of Saudi riyals (at a rate of about four to a dollar), the report said.
Saudi religious teaching had particular force because it came from the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad, the land of Islam’s two holiest places, Mecca and Medina. When Saudi imams arrived in Muslim countries in Asia or Africa, or in Muslim communities in Europe or the Americas, wearing traditional Arabian robes, speaking the language of the Quran — and carrying a generous checkbook — they had automatic credibility.
As the 20th century progressed and people of different nationalities and faiths mixed routinely, the puritanical, exclusionary nature of Wahhab’s teachings would become more and more dysfunctional. But the Saudi government would find it extraordinarily difficult to shed or soften its ideology, especially after the landmark year of 1979.
In Tehran that year, the Iranian revolution brought to power a radical Shiite government, symbolically challenging Saudi Arabia, the leader of Sunnism, for leadership of global Islam. The declaration of an Islamic Republic escalated the competition between the two major branches of Islam, spurring the Saudis to redouble their efforts to counter Iran and spread Wahhabism around the world.
Then, in a stunning strike, a band of 500 Saudi extremists seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca for two weeks, publicly calling Saudi rulers puppets of the West and traitors to true Islam. The rebels were defeated, but leading clerics agreed to back the government only after assurances of support for a crackdown on immodest ways in the kingdom and a more aggressive export of Wahhabism abroad.
Finally, at year’s end, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and seized power to prop up a Communist government. It soon faced an insurgent movement of mujahedeen, or holy warriors battling for Islam, which drew fighters from around the world for a decade-long battle to expel the occupiers.
Throughout the 1980s, Saudi Arabia and the United States worked together to finance the mujahedeen in this great Afghan war, which would revive the notion of noble armed jihad for Muslims worldwide. President Ronald Reagan famously welcomed to the Oval Office a delegation of bearded “Afghan freedom fighters” whose social and theological views were hardly distinguishable from those later embraced by the Taliban.
In fact, the United States spent $50 million from 1986 to 1992 on what was called a “jihad literacy” project — printing books for Afghan children and adults to encourage violence against non-Muslim “infidels” like Soviet troops. A first-grade language textbook for Pashto speakers, for example, according to a study by Dana Burde, an associate professor at New York University, used “Mujahid,” or fighter of jihad, as the illustration: “My brother is a Mujahid. Afghan Muslims are Mujahedeen. I do jihad together with them. Doing jihad against infidels is our duty.”
Pressure After 9/11
One day in the months after the Sept. 11 attacks, Robert W. Jordan, the United States ambassador to Saudi Arabia, was driving in the kingdom with the longtime Saudi ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar Bin Sultan. The prince pointed to a mosque and said, “I just fired the imam there.” The man’s preaching had been too militant, he said.
Mr. Jordan, a Texas lawyer, said that after the Qaeda attacks, he had stepped up pressure on the Saudi government over its spread of extremism. “I told them: ‘What you teach in your schools and preach in your mosques now is not an internal matter. It affects our national security,’” he said.
After years of encouraging and financing a harsh Islam in support of the anti-Soviet jihad, the United States had reversed course — gradually during the 1990s and then dramatically after the Sept. 11 attacks. But in pressuring Saudi Arabia, American officials would tread lightly, acutely aware of American dependence on Saudi oil and intelligence cooperation. Saudi reform would move at an excruciatingly slow pace.
Twelve years after September. 11, after years of quiet American complaints about Saudi teachings, a State Department contractor, the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy, completed a study of official Saudi textbooks. It reported some progress in cutting back on bigoted and violent content but found that plenty of objectionable material remained. Officials never released the 2013 study, for fear of angering the Saudis. The New York Times obtained it under the Freedom of Information Act.
Seventh graders were being taught that “fighting the infidels to elevate the words of Allah” was among the deeds Allah loved the most, the report found, among dozens of passages it found troubling. Tenth graders learned that Muslims who abandoned Islam should be jailed for three days and, if they did not change their minds, “killed for walking away from their true religion.” Fourth graders read that non-Muslims had been “shown the truth but abandoned it, like the Jews,” or had replaced truth with “ignorance and delusion, like the Christians.”
Some of the books, prepared and distributed by the government, propagated views that were hostile to science, modernity and women’s rights, not to say downright quirky — advocating, for instance, execution for sorcerers and warning against the dangers of the Rotary Club and the Lions Club. (The groups’ intent, said a 10th-grade textbook, “is to achieve the goals of the Zionist movement.”)
The textbooks, or other Saudi teaching materials with similar content, had been distributed in scores of countries, the study found. Textbook reform has continued since the 2013 study, and Saudi officials say they are trying to replace older books distributed overseas.
But as the study noted, the schoolbooks were only a modest part of the Saudis’ lavishly funded global export of Wahhabism. In many places, the study said, the largess includes “a Saudi-funded school with a Wahhabist faculty (educated in a Saudi-funded Wahhabist University), attached to a mosque with a Wahhabist imam, and ultimately controlled by an international Wahhabist educational body.”
This ideological steamroller has landed in diverse places where Muslims of different sects had spent centuries learning to accommodate one another. Sayyed Shah, a Pakistani journalist working on a doctorate in the United States, described the devastating effect on his town, not far from the Afghan border, of the arrival some years ago of a young Pakistani preacher trained in a Saudi-funded seminary.
Village residents had long held a mélange of Muslim beliefs, he said. “We were Sunni, but our culture, our traditions were a mixture of Shia and Barelvi and Deobandi,” Mr. Shah said, referring to Muslim sects. His family would visit the large Barelvi shrine, and watch their Shiite neighbors as they lashed themselves in a public religious ritual. “We wouldn’t do that ourselves, but we’d hand out sweets and water,” he said.
The new preacher, he said, denounced the Barelvi and Shiite beliefs as false and heretical, dividing the community and setting off years of bitter argument. By 2010, Mr. Shah said, “everything had changed.” Women who had used shawls to cover their hair and face began wearing full burqas. Militants began attacking kiosks where merchants sold secular music CDs. Twice, terrorists used explosives to try to destroy the village’s locally famous shrine.
Now, Mr. Shah said, families are divided; his cousin, he said, “just wants Saudi religion.” He said an entire generation had been “indoctrinated” with a rigid, unforgiving creed.
“It’s so difficult these days,” he said. “Initially we were on a single path. We just had economic problems, but we were culturally sound.”
He added, “But now it’s very difficult, because some people want Saudi culture to be our culture, and others are opposing that.”
C. Christine Fair, a specialist on Pakistan at Georgetown University, said Mr. Shah’s account was credible. But like many scholars describing the Saudi impact on religion, she said that militancy in Pakistan also had local causes. While Saudi money and teaching have unquestionably been “accelerants,” Pakistan’s sectarian troubles and jihadist violence have deep roots dating to the country’s origins in the partition of India in 1947.
“The idea that without the Saudis Pakistan would be Switzerland is ridiculous,” she said.
Elusive Saudi Links
That is the disputed question, of course: how the world would be different without decades of Saudi-funded shaping of Islam. Though there is a widespread belief that Saudi influence has contributed to the growth of terrorism, it is rare to find a direct case of cause and effect. For example, in Brussels, the Grand Mosque was built with Saudi money and staffed with Saudi imams. In 2012, according to Saudi diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, one Saudi preacher was removed after Belgian complaints that he was a “true Salafi” who did not accept other schools of Islam. And Brussels’ immigrant neighborhoods, notably Molenbeek, have long been the home of storefront mosques teaching hard-line Salafi views.
After the terrorist attacks in Paris in November and in Brussels in March were tied to an Islamic State cell in Belgium, the Saudi history was the subject of severalnews mediareports. Yet it was difficult to find any direct link between the bombers and the Saudi legacy in the Belgian capital.
A wounded man at the airport in Brussels after an attack by jihadists in March. There appears to be no direct link between the bombers and the Saudi legacy in the Belgian capital.Credit Ketevan Kardava/Associated Press
Several suspects had petty criminal backgrounds; their knowledge of Islam was described by friends as superficial; they did not appear to be regulars at any mosque. Though the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the blasts, resentment of the treatment of North African immigrant families in Belgium and exposure to Islamic State propaganda, in person or via the internet and social media, appeared to be the major factors motivating the attacks.
If there was a Saudi connection, it was highly indirect, perhaps playing out over a generation or longer. Hind Fraihi, a Moroccan-Belgian journalist who went underground in the Brussels immigrant neighborhood of Molenbeek in 2005 and wrote a book about it, met Saudi-trained imams and found lots of extremist literature written in Saudi Arabia that encouraged “polarization, the sentiment of us against them, the glorification of jihad.”
The recent attackers, Ms. Fraihi said, were motivated by “lots of factors — economic frustration, racism, a generation that feels it has no future.” But Saudi teaching, she said, “is part of the cocktail.”
Without the Saudi presence over the decades, might a more progressive and accommodating Islam, reflecting immigrants’ Moroccan roots, have taken hold in Brussels? Would young Muslims raised in Belgium have been less susceptible to the stark, violent call of the Islamic State? Conceivably, but the case is impossible to prove.
Or consider an utterly different cultural milieu — the world’s most populous Muslim country, Indonesia. The Saudis have sent money for mosque-building, books and teachers for decades, said Sidney Jones, the director of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict in Jakarta.
“Over time,” said Ms. Jones, who has visited or lived in Indonesia since the 1970s, the Saudi influence “has contributed to a more conservative, more intolerant atmosphere.” (President Obama, who lived in Indonesia as a boy, has remarked on the same phenomenon.) She said she believed money from private Saudi donors and foundations was behind campaigns in Indonesia against Shiite and Ahmadi Islam, considered heretical by Wahhabi teaching. Some well-known Indonesian religious vigilantes are Saudi-educated, she said.
But when Ms. Jones studied the approximately 1,000 people arrested in Indonesia on terrorism charges since 2002, she found only a few — “literally four or five” — with ties to Wahhabi or Salafi institutions. When it comes to violence, she concluded, the Saudi connection is “mostly a red herring.”
In fact, she said, there is a gulf between Indonesian jihadists and Indonesian Salafis who look to Saudi or Yemeni scholars for guidance. The jihadists accuse the Salafis of failing to act on their convictions; the Salafis scorn the jihadists as extremists.
Whatever the global effects of decades of Saudi proselytizing, it is under greater scrutiny than ever, from outside and inside the kingdom. Saudi leaders’ ideological reform efforts, encompassing textbooks and preaching, amount to a tacit recognition that its religious exports have sometimes backfired. And the kingdom has stepped up an aggressive public relations campaign in the West, hiring American publicists to counter critical news media reports and fashion a reformist image for Saudi leaders.
But neither the publicists nor their clients can renounce the strain of Islam on which the Saudi state was built, and old habits sometimes prove difficult to suppress. A prominent cleric, Saad bin Nasser al-Shethri, had been stripped of a leadership position by the previous king, Abdullah, for condemning coeducation. King Salman restored Mr. Shethri to the job last year, not long after the cleric had joined the chorus of official voices criticizing the Islamic State. But Mr. Shethri’s reasoning for denouncing the Islamic State suggested the difficulty of change. The group was, he said, “more infidel than Jews and Christians.”
The holy month of Ramadan saw terrorist attacks claimed by the Islamic State take almost 400 lives around the world. The targeting of Bangladesh and Malaysia in particular has revived fears that with IS under military pressure in Syria and Iraq, its shadowy planners are looking at resorting to the old al-Qaida model of networked terrorist cells operating in Muslim-majority Asia.
This means that in addition to the many thousands of foreign fighters who made their way into the ranks of IS in Syria and Iraq returning home with the motivation and the skills to carry out terrorism, it is possible that IS has begun helping them recruit and organize spectacular attacks.
Although evidence of a formal shift in IS strategy toward Asia remains sketchy, there is no shortage of conducive social factors and permissible environments for the incubation of a new wave of Islamic extremism. For the first time, even Singapore has posted official warnings that an attack may be imminent.
Islamic militancy is a strong undercurrent in the Muslim-majority states of the region, fueled by social and economic injustice and well-financed Wahhabi and Salafist teachings. The recent surge in tension between religious communities — Buddhist against Muslim in Myanmar, Sunni against Shia in Indonesia — has helped highlight perceived threats to Muslims that lend impetus to militant teachings.
Ethno-nationalist struggles in southern Thailand and the southern Philippines remain unresolved and offer permissible environments for Islamic extremist thinking and ideology. The failure to establish a productive dialogue process in southern Thailand or to make progress on implementing a comprehensive peace agreement in Muslim Mindanao is fast alienating a generation of youth who are open to extremist views.
There is also a resurgence of archipelagic regionalism gaining prominence in mostly Muslim maritime Southeast Asia. Since last year, a specific Malay-speaking unit within IS, known as Katibah Nusantara, has amassed a force of 500-plus fighters hailing from Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines. Katibah Nusantara’s social media presence is conducted in Malay, and its messaging openly solicits the “Nusantara” region — an old term for the Malay world. This group is an embryonic terrorist network that will become a conflict driver when it returns to the region.
Inevitably, there are calls for harsher security measures. A new anti-terrorist law in Indonesia seeks to increase the period of detention of suspects without trial from one week to six months. However, this plays into the hands of conservative political forces that would use the terrorist threat to roll back democratic space and legal certainty in the region.
A far more effective, but admittedly challenging approach would be for governments and societies in the region to address the underlying factors generating the potential appeal of transnational Islamic extremism.
The first priority is for states to accept responsibility for the careful management of relations between religious communities. Growing tensions between religious minority and majority groups have accompanied the general trend toward more open, democratic politics. In Indonesia, political parties have sought to exploit these tensions, rather than tamp them down, in the quest for votes. In Myanmar, Buddhist nationalism was exploited in the run up to last year’s democratic election, resulting in violence against Muslim communities.
In Malaysia, the government has carelessly allowed conservative Islamic views to upset the country’s delicate ethnic and religious balance. Just a week or so before the first IS attack in Malaysia, a leading member of the Islamic clergy declared that non-Muslim members of a leading opposition party could be slain because they opposed the imposition of the Islamic criminal code.
Second, greater attention must be paid to the external sponsorship of religious education. The virtually unfettered access to funding from Wahhabi foundations in Saudi Arabia has cultivated less tolerant conceptions of Islamic faith in the region. This in turn exposes young Muslims to an austere, exclusivist version of Islam at odds with the traditionally moderate and open-minded brand of mostly Hanafi-school Islam practiced in Southeast Asia for hundreds of years.
This is not simply about promoting moderation or balancing religious and secular curricula, but speaks to the need to actively recover the region’s distinctive adaptation of Islamic dogma and teaching, which over centuries has enabled Muslims and non-Muslims to coexist harmoniously. In the 1980s, Indonesia’s Ministry of Religious Affairs considered adapting Islamic law to the specific Indonesian context; today, Islamic scholars in Indonesia and Malaysia are arguing for the replication of laws and conventions that governed society in 7th century Arabia.
It is too late to simply make rhetorical appeals for moderation. There is an urgent need to control or shut off the foreign funding and preaching that, even in prisons where extremists are held, conducts the poisonous message of hatred toward nonbelievers and the isolation of Muslim communities.
Thirdly, for Muslim areas of southern Thailand and the Philippines, the absence of a credible political dialogue and meaningful political empowerment for the populations in question creates a real risk that difficult (but ultimately resolvable) ethno-nationalist conflicts will be displaced by barbaric terrorism dominated by groups with whom dialogue is far more problematic.
Unfortunately, the approach taken by central governments in Bangkok and Manila to date has prioritized the safeguarding of territorial sovereignty at the expense of either meaningful dialogue or sincere commitments to autonomy.
They reap what they sow: The Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which has negotiated in good faith with successive Manila governments for almost 20 years, is awaiting passage of an implementing law through Congress so that a mutually agreed model of special autonomy can be implemented in Muslim Mindanao. Meanwhile, according to the group, thousands of young Muslim Moros grow impatient with the absence of a peace dividend and are susceptible to extremist ideology streaming through their smartphones and tablets.
On the nearby islands of Sulu and Basilan, a network of well-armed criminal gangs inspired by al-Qaida 15 years earlier use IS propaganda and alleged affiliation to inspire a new generation of militants — though mainly in the interests of making money by kidnapping innocent sailors and tourists. The alleged complicity of local government and security forces in this lucrative business makes it hard to imagine an effective campaign to prevent IS from establishing a beachhead in the area.
Taken altogether, smarter approaches to social and education policy, as well as the political management of marginalized people, can make it more difficult for IS to recruit or sponsor its violent messengers of hatred.
The biggest obstacle to making the rapid adjustments needed is that Southeast Asia, where more than 300 million Muslims reside, is still very much a sum of its parts. No Malaysian government will take kindly to being told about the dangers of giving conservative mullahs free rein; no Myanmar official appreciates being told how to treat Muslims better; no Thai government wants to be pushed into a sincere political dialogue to end the conflict in southern Thailand.
Until the region takes a truly collective view of its own security and starts to put aside selfish concerns of sovereignty in the interests of the common good, it seems only a matter of time before Southeast Asia once again becomes a significant target of terror.
Michael Vatikiotis is the Asia regional director of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue.
The Quran in Surah Ali-‘Imran (3) states that “The only religion approved by God is Islam.” The Arabic word ‘deen’ essentially mean ‘way of life’ rather that the restricted ritualistic meaning of the word ‘religion’.
This religion of strict monotheism is taught by all prophet-messengers from Adam to its completion and perfection by Muhammad, the last of all prophet-messegers. But, as it is wont with human beings, corruption and deterioration set in and complete their work in after about 300 years (10 generations) to change the original teachings. Thus, the monotheism of Prophet Moses became polytheism in Judaism, of Prophet Jesus polytheism in Christianity, and of Muhammad polytheism in Sunnism. Sunnism is polytheistic in that it has elevated Muhammad to a second god, against his will. 
Sunnism is sectarian “Islam”, worshiping two gods.  Two gods are one too many. It is polititeism. Fortunately for mankind, the last of God’s scripture, the Quran, is divinely protected so that all mankind can always refer to it as its guide.
This divine protection lies internally in the scripture in a mathematically awesome and impossible to imitate structure called Code 19. This Code is stated in the Quran in Surah Al-Muddaththir (74), verses 30-31.
The verses go, “Over it is nineteen. We appointed angels to be guardians of Hell, and we assign their number (19) (1) to disturb the disbelievers, (2) to convince the Christians and the Jews (that this is a divine scripture), (3) to strengthen the faith of the faithful, (4) to remove all traces of doubt from the hearts of Christians, Jews, as well as believers, and (5) to expose those who harbor doubt in their hearts. The disbelievers will say, ‘What does God mean by this allegory?’ God thus sends astray whomever He wills, and guides whomever He wills. None knows the soldiers of your Lord except He. This is a reminder for the people.”
The rise of Islam, beginning with the reign of Prophet Muhammad in the Arabian Peninsular in early seventh century, within a short time of only sixty years shot up to be the Number One power in the then world, beating the two superpowers, the Byzantian Empire and the Persian Empire.
Historian Philip K. Hitti, in his book, History of the Arabs (1970), states, “If someone in the first third of the seventh Christian century had the audacity to prophesy that within a decade some unheralded, unforeseen power from hitherto barbarous and little-known land of Arabia was to make its appearance, hurl itself against the only two world powers of the age, fall heir to the one — the Sasanid – and strip the other – the Byzantine — of its fairest provinces, he would have undoubtedly have been declared a lunatic. Yet that was exactly what happened.
After the death of the Prophet sterile Arabia seems to have been converted as if by magic into a nursery of heroes the like of whom both in number and quality is hard to find anywhere. The military campaigns of Khalid ibn-al-Walid and ‘Amar ibn-al-‘As which ensued in al-Iraq, Persia, Syria and Egypt remain among the most brilliantly executed in the history of warfare and bear favourable comparison with those of Napoleon, Hannibal or Alexander.” (p. 142).
A Western philosophical historian, Robert Briffault, in his epoch-making book, The Making of Humanity (1919), after denouncing a conspiracy of silence by most Western historians on the contributions of Muslim science to modern Europe, surmarised the contribution of Muslim science to civilization, thus: “The debt of our science to that of the Arabs does not consist in startling discoveries or revolutionary theories. Science owes a great deal more to Arab culture , it owes its existence. The ancient world was, as we saw, pre-scientific. The astronomy and mathematics of the Greeks were a foreign importation never thoroughly acclamatised in Greek culture.
The Greeks systematized, generalized and theorized, but he patient ways of investigation, the accumulation of positive knowledge, the minute methods of science, detailed and prolonged observation, experimental inquiry, were altogether alien to the Greek temperament. … What we called science arose in Europe as result of a new spirit of inquiry, of new methods of investigation, of the method of experiment, observation, measurement, of the development of mathematics in a form unknown to the Greeks. That spirit and those methods were introduced into the European world by the Arabs.” (p. 191)
Muslim civilization lasted eight centuries. In that time, Baghdad became the capital of the world and Europe became students at the feet of Baghdad. When the rot set in, Europe took over the banner of civilization and what is known as the European Renaissance began. Will Western leadership last for ever? Only time can tell. But basing ourselves on its truncated epistemology, we can say that it cannot last forever, at most another two or three decades.
One of two thing will happen. Either Europe and the United States will adopt the true revolutionary doctrine of Islam, which I characterize as “revolutionary, life-affirming, and death-defying”, or the Muslims themselves will be reborn with that true spirit of the Quran and borne in the life Prophet Muhammad and the early republican-democratic Caliphates.
In the meanwhile, Muslim leaders must answer the question why the Muslim way of life, guaranteed by God, has collapsed, and how they can rebuild it. To answer this all-important question, they must re-study the Quran with a scientific methodology. I can suggest a few signposts.
First, at a certain point in time, Muslim science froze and deteriorated, due to wrong teaching of certain so-called masters. These were made into masters by a new priesthood class adopted in imitation of medieval Hinduism and Christianity. In Islam there is no priesthood class.
Second, at a certain point in time, a certain attitude of fatalism developed in Islam due a new theology preached in accordance to hadith teachings. Hadiths are essentially fabrications falsely ascribed to the great name of Prophet Muhammad.
Third, that new theology also preached salvation in the Afterlife, in a nondescript Theologians’ Nirvana in imitation of Buddhism. This led to Muslim apathy in a life waiting for death. At this point, roughly from the Fourteenth Century onwards, this false Islam died, with the false Muslims.
Fourth and last to rebuild, the Muslims must re-study the Quran (which is their and mankind’s book of guidance) and the examples of their great leaders in the republican democratic period , to find correct answers to their current plight.
I have surmarised the teachings of the Quran as “revolutionary, life-affirming and death-defying”. We must seek salvation in this life by raising our souls to a higher level. It is this raising of our souls to a higher level that is necessary for the coming Second Muslim Civilization, which must come.
 See Quran (16: 51) which states: “Do not worship two gods. There is only one God.” Further Surah 63, verse I, invalidates the second syahadah which is uttered by hypocrites.
 God has proclaimed: “Do not worship two gods; there is only on god. Therefore you shall reverence Me.” (Quran, 16: 51).
Political expediency may deliver up harsh punishments that nobody wants except politicians
The political debate in Malaysia appears to be trapped in menace as the specter of Kelantan’s barbaric hudud law, which advocates 7th-century punishments including amputation for theft and stoning to death for adultery, among others, continues to loom over the country.
Najib courts disaster with Hudud
A paper by the Malaysian Islamic Development Department, known as JAKIM, that was discussed on The Malay Mail Online a few weeks ago has further aggravated the already tense situation by stating that the highly controversial law, if implemented at the national level, should apply to all citizens of Malaysia regardless of religion and in spite of the fact that hudud must never exist in the first place.
For the time being, hudud can still be avoided as it has not even become law in Kelantan yet, let alone on the federal level. Its recurrent appearance on the political stage, however, shows that it is merely the symptom of an underlying disease, rather than the absurd product of a few twisted minds that can be trivialized or even ignored.
This disease is never directly addressed by the nation’s highest officials who insist on putting a God for whose existence there can never be any proof at the center of their concerns instead of a populace that, unless one adheres to solipsism, is very real and increasingly isolated from the rest of the world due to the dangerous Islamic ideas of its leaders.
That Malaysia might eventually – and quite soon – collapse on a social, cultural and humanitarian level is not solely caused by the current threat of hudud. And dodging this legal madness alone will not prevent further disintegration in a country that is already plagued by deplorable chasms separating ethnicities, religions and political groups.
Malaysia has arrived at a critical point in its history and whether or not it can survive in the future will be a direct result of the decisions made by its highest officials today.
What might happen to a Malaysia with hudud during the next few decades is of course difficult to predict and would depend on a myriad of factors. Yet, attempts at drawing a picture of the future as it could develop is crucial in order to understand what is at stake for a nation that could be the beacon of understanding and humanitarianism within Southeast Asia, but has consistently failed to live up to this expectation.
This is a rough sketch of such a future. The most likely development that has been in the making for decades is perhaps the secession of Sabah and Sarawak from the Peninsular part of the country. Justified complaints that any implementation of hudud would violate the Malaysian constitution and therefore potentially nullify the historical agreement that bans the governments of the Bornean states from leaving the federation have spread during the current controversy.
The Ayatollah of Perak
That secession is considered a real threat by the elite around Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak was clearly expressed by the updated Sedition Act, which explicitly outlaws the promotion of independence for Sabah and Sarawak. From a humanitarian point of view, however, leaving Malaysia and forming an independent nation would probably be the only sensible decision for Bornean policymakers.
Independence would open the gates for a degree of open-mindedness and social inclusiveness that the current political mainstream and obsession with Islam in Putrajaya renders completely impossible. Although Islamic tendencies will remain to be a problem – particularly in Sabah – the newly founded nation would have the potential to become the freest country in Southeast Asia and rise to be a catalyst for positive change in the region. In particular, it would further isolate the religious dictatorship of Brunei whose sultan seems determined to reinvent his country as a humanitarian wasteland.
The comparatively small population of Malaysia’s eastern states might result in a challenging economic situation for a nascent nation. It would therefore be paramount to openly welcome immigrants and nationalize them quickly. Particularly if hudud should ever hit Malaysia on the federal level, an influx of ethnically non-Malay migrants from the peninsular states can almost be guaranteed. Many of them might arrive without any regrets at all as they would be leaving behind a homeland that has never really wanted them in the first place.
Ethnically Malay citizens of the western states might consider Borneo as well; and furthermore find another safe haven in Indonesia, particularly if the current Indonesian president Joko “Jokowi” Widodo can lead the country farther away from its oppressive past and strengthen its economy. The virtual lack of a language barrier paired with the option to live a moderate form of Islam that is becoming increasingly discouraged in Malaysia or drop the religion altogether could attract many.
No matter where exactly its individual citizens would attempt to build a better future, huge parts of the economic and intellectual elite would leave Malaysia. In an analogous manner, international investment would move out under hudud because neighboring countries in the region would offer equal or even better opportunities minus the legal barbarism. Sadly, it is probably this last concern that will prevent hudud on the national level because money tends to speak more directly to the hearts of the powerful in Putrajaya than human suffering.
What would a Malaysia look like in which the numbers of ethnic minorities, intellectuals and wealthy citizens will be seriously reduced? It would be a country in which only the most radical elements remain, a breeding ground for Islamism that might eventually become potent enough to topple the current pseudo-democratic government that created it. Malaysia’s future could turn into a partial re-enactment of the sad fate of some Middle Eastern nations that were on a promising path in the middle of the last century, but then were violently pushed back into darkness by religious fanatics.
Of course this is a very gloomy prognostication and perhaps a quite extreme version of what the future might bring. Yet, certain elements of this development can already be felt in Malaysia today.
Apart from the obvious necessity to never allow hudud or anything related to become even a tiny section of the law, the inevitable change that Malaysia needs goes right to the core. Islam must be dethroned as official religion of the federation. And it must not be replaced with any other religion.
When the JAKIM paper mentioned above poses the question how “citizens of a country that exalts Islam as religion of the state assume that it is their human rights to not be placed under the influence of Shariah laws,” it inadvertently exemplifies the problem. Integrity, happiness and opportunity to live a fulfilling life are withheld from Malaysia’s citizens under the current circumstances and therefore the very foundation of the nation is flawed.
The assumption that the state is obliged to do anything for the institution of Islam is based on a constitution that has become the source of racism and religious intolerance on the highest political levels. Such a constitution – and in fact every constitution – needs to be challenged. It needs to prove anew at any point in history that it can create the best possible living conditions for the citizens affected by it and thereby the best possible society.
It is not politics that needs to bend over backwards in order to please an ancient way of oppression that has lost touch with reality. It is religious institutions that have to show that they are not outpaced by humanitarian progress.
Malaysia’s elite can no longer ignore the truth that Islam needs to be challenged, needs to be reformed and in its current form will cause the country to fall apart. If politicians care more about the wellbeing of their citizens than their own political power, there is no other conclusion.
Malaysia has already been pushed dangerously far towards the abyss of religious fanaticism. It is now time for those in charge to talk human rights instead of hudud.
The author, who has lived in Indonesia and Malaysia for the last year and a half, will commence as a graduate student in International Studies at the Graduate School of Asia-Pacific Studies of Waseda University in Tokyo.
Islam’s most conservative adherents are finding that politics is hard. But it beats the alternative
WERE it not for his bushy beard and trim moustache, Nader Bakkar (above) could be mistaken for one of Egypt’s secular liberal politicians. The young spokesman for the Nour party is tolerant, reasonable and smart—he is about to begin a fellowship at Harvard. “We are reformers, not revolutionaries,” Mr Bakkar says of his party. “Compromise is not a bad word.” But his facial hair conveys a different message. Mr Bakkar and his party adhere to the ultra-conservative brand of Sunni Islam known as Salafism.
In the West that brand is most associated with extremist groups such as al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS), whose members are sometimes called Salafist-jihadists; or the intolerance of Saudi Arabia, where adherents are called Wahhabis. The Saudis have used their oil wealth to spread the influence of Salafism across the Muslim world, funding Wahhabi-inspired mosques and madrassas—and, at times, extremist groups. As a result, some think Salafism is the fastest-growing Islamic movement.
It is also growing more diverse. All Salafists take a fundamentalist approach to Islam, emulating the Prophet Muhammad and his earliest followers—al-salaf al-salih, the “pious forefathers”—right down to their facial hair. They reject religious innovation, or bida, and support the implementation of sharia (Islamic law). Salafist scholars, though, are far from homogeneous, expressing different views on everything from apostasy to activism. Most notably, many Salafists now engage in politics despite a tradition of quiescence. But with little to show for their efforts, they must decide whether to push on, withdraw or pursue politics by other means, such as war or terrorism.
Prior to the Arab spring some Salafists had been members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the region’s main Islamist movement, with a long tradition of political activism. But most Salafists shunned politics. The movement is often broken down into three categories. The most infamous are the jihadists, who are but a tiny minority. The most numerous are the purists (or quietists), who believe that politics undercuts the sovereignty of God and is therefore best avoided. Like the Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia, most bend a knee to Muslim heads of state, no matter how awful, in order to avoid creating fitna, or chaos.
Rise and fall of the activists
Activist Salafists, those involved in politics, make up the third group. Their number swelled in the aftermath of the Arab spring, when the boundaries between politics and religion blurred, writes Jacob Olidort of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think-tank. “Giving definition and structure to the changing events became a question of necessity rather than choice, especially as Salafists faced pressure from media and other Islamist groups to comment on these events.”
Relatively few Salafists participated in the protests, but some saw opportunity in the opening they created, arguing that sharia could now be enacted via politics. Encouraged by their brethren in Kuwait, where political Salafism was already well-established, Egypt’s Salafists took advantage. The Nour party, which grew out of the Salafist Call, the country’s main Salafist organisation based in Alexandria, won over 20% of the seats in parliament in the country’s first free election. It then ensured that the country’s new constitution (now abandoned) had an Islamist tint.
At the same time, the stature of the purists fell owing to their support for the old guard and their opposition to the protests. Saudi Arabia’s top clerics issued a decree stating that “reform should not be by demonstrations and other means and methods that give rise to unrest and divide the community.” In a lecture in 2011 Ali al-Halabi, a prominent Jordanian cleric, said the protests were “far from the law of God” and motivated by materialism. But at the time, the purists were often ignored. They now feel vindicated. “The countries of the Arab spring did not gain anything but destruction, corruption and the loss of security,” says Mr Halabi.
In Egypt the Salafists’ conservative influence contributed to the fall of Muhammad Morsi, the president and a Muslim Brother. The Nour party’s decision to support his removal and the coup of Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi alienated many of its former supporters. But it also made it unlikely that the Salafists would suffer a fate like that of the Brotherhood, which Mr Sisi has crushed. “The party has reinforced the idea among quietists that you have to sell out or make deals with the devil in order to be in politics,” says Will McCants of the Brookings Institution in Washington.
The purists can also find support for their rejection of political engagement in Tunisia, the only democracy to emerge from the Arab spring. Many activist Salafists invested their hopes in the Muslim Brotherhood-inspired Nahda party, which came first in Tunisia’s elections in 2011. Nahda’s leader, Rached Ghannouchi, even claims to be a Salafist himself. But while the party has embraced conservative Muslims, it has also taken steps to curb their influence. Its decision to renounce sharia as the main source of legislation in its draft constitution left Salafists outraged, as did its promise not to impose the veil on women or ban alcohol and interest payments. Unhappy with the secular direction of the country, and with little voice in politics, many Salafists have turned to protests and violence, at home and abroad.
The perceived failure of political engagement by Salafists risks benefiting the jihadists. Tunisia is now the largest source of foreign fighters for IS. The group has also attracted large numbers from other countries where Salafists have little political sway, such as Jordan, Lebanon and Morocco—but not so many from Kuwait, where they still have a strong voice. Governments nervous that the militants may turn on them have enlisted the help of Salafist leaders. Some see the purists as a counter to jihadism, due to their inward-looking focus. Morocco has tried to bring more Salafists into the political fold. Abdelkarim Chadli, a prominent Salafist convicted of terrorism in 2003, recently joined the Democratic and Social Movement, a regime-friendly political party, and vowed to bring other Salafists with him.
Salafists, though, may no longer see the point of political engagement. “Many people say we betrayed the revolution, that we approve of the regime and authority,” admits Mr Bakkar. He sees his party’s survival as its main accomplishment. But activist Salafists have made little progress towards their goal of creating an Islamic state. The appeal of IS across much of the Middle East is that it has done just that.